The quality of mercy

THE MATRON, Sister Philomena, a kindly woman, visited her patients about noon-time every day, when I was last in the mother and baby ward of St. Joseph’s Hospital, about fifty years ago.

THE MATRON, Sister Philomena, a kindly woman, visited her patients about noon-time every day, when I was last in the mother and baby ward of St. Joseph’s Hospital, about fifty years ago.

This hospital has now become the South Tipperary General Hospital and has been the subject of a recent adverse report from HIQA because of poor hygiene practices.

The Matron, a Sister of Mercy, while having a friendly word with us, had an eagle-eye for a stained sheet or a spot of dirt on the floor.

One day, she identified a thin circle of grime, almost imperceptible, around the base of a tap in the hand-wash basin. The woman cleaner, who had already “cleaned” the basin, was immediately summoned, and it was re-scrubbed, and re-inspected by Sister Philomena.

You could call it unnecessary fussing. You could even call it carping, but there was method in the Matron’s fastidiousness. And while it is not quite the full truth, I have heard many older people say that they never heard of MRSA “while the nuns were in charge of the hospitals.”

conditions were 

The Mercy Sisters had long experience of hygiene, and the lack of it, which pre-dated their taking up duty in the Clonmel Workhouse in the early 1870s. The conditions in the overcrowded hospital departments of these institutions, staffed by untrained people, were appalling. While the local Boards of Guardians had long campaigned for the employment of the trained nursing nuns, the Poor Law Commissioners were very reluctant.

It was not until 1861, when three Mercy Sisters in Limerick said they would forego their salaries of £20 per annum and would donate these to the welfare of patients, that the Commissioners finally relented. The resultant reform in standards of care, nursing and diet, and the reduction in infection, was such that by 1881 Boards were actively seeking the services of the nuns.

By then, the Irish Sisters of Mercy had gained considerable experience in battling the nightmare conditions of institutions, inappropriately described as hospitals, in the Crimean War (1854-56). Florence Nightingale and her “ladies,” none of whom had nursing experience, are rightly honoured for their heroic work in that war, but the contribution of the Irish nuns has been lost in their shadow.

(Nightingale is alleged not to have liked the Irish as a race, and she particularly disliked “popery”).

Fifteen Mercy nuns left Ireland in December 1854, under the leadership of an extraordinary talented and dedicated woman, Mother Francis Bridgeman (then called Mrs Bridgeman). On arrival in Constantinople in bitter weather, they were variously despatched to two “hospitals”: Scrutari and Koulali, and later to Balaklava.

Scrutari was the first so-called hospital which Nightingale had seen and in describing it she recited Dante’s Inferno: “Abandon hope all ye who enter.”

Though the scene is unimaginable in modern times, the nuns did not submit to despair, but immediately got on with doing the best they could. Twenty yards from the entrance, they were assailed by the fetid stench. There, “shroudless and coffinless corpses” awaited burial. There was an acute shortage of beds and equipment, so that badly wounded, demented, frostbitten men had to be nursed on limited floor-space. And everywhere there were rats, which had invaded food stores and even gnawed on the very limited supplies of bandages. The nuns themselves were given shelter in a small shed, which they shared with the rats, though they ultimately found a “Russian cat.”

Somehow, they brought a semblance of order into the chaos, and were praised by the surgeons, some of whom are quoted as saying “we have no one to depend on but the nuns.” They sterilised instruments, in so far as that was possible, applied poultices, removed frostbitten flesh “as tenderly as they could,” administered limited supplies of medicine and the occasional tot of brandy when that was available, and tried to bring some elements of humanity into a terrible place. All the time, Mother Bridgeman, by her example and support, “kept up their spirits.”

Two of the nuns died of Cholera at Balaklava, and five others, deeply affected by their experience, died within a few years of their return to Ireland. Only one survived into her seventies and she, Sister Aloysius Fahy, was awarded the Royal Red Cross medal by Queen Victoria in 1897, though she claimed she was too old to travel to publicly accept it.

their full story has

yet to be told

Nellie O Cleirigh (Clonmel-born Nellie Beary) briefly told the story of these nuns in a book of essays (Hardship & High Living - Irish women’s lives 1803-1923). The full story of their place in the history of Irish women - has yet to be written.

But back to Sister Philomena! It is now accepted that the source of hospital-acquired infections is the resistance of germs to modern drugs, and that these breed and thrive in the dank dusty chinks of hospital premises.

The Mercy Matron in St. Joseph’s was away ahead of her time!